HC Deb 22 May 1973 vol 857 cc279-82
Mr. Speaker

Mr. Watkins, Ten-Minute Rule Bill—at last.

6.14 p.m.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the drained weight of foods canned or otherwise pre-packed in liquid to be displayed on the outside of the can or container, to regulate the canning and pre-packing of foods in liquid, and for purposes connected therewith. As you say, Mr. Speaker, "at last"—after the protracted wait during the debate on all the reasons why the House should not adjourn for the Whitsun Recess, I now seek leave to introduce a Bill on the subject of drained weight. The Long Title refers to this as A Bill to require the drained weight of foods canned or otherwise pre-packed in liquid to be displayed on the outside of the can or container, to regulate the canning and pre-packing of foods in liquid, and for purposes connected therewith. The term "drained weight" has come more and more into use in the House and in the country, but some hon. Members may be slightly mystified by it, so I shall first give a definition. It is, simply, the weight of fruit or vegetables or any other canned food measured when the can is opened and the liquid is drained off.

The National Federation of Consumer Groups has carried out a great deal of work and conducted surveys and research into the proportions of liquid and solid matter in canned food stuffs. Its surveys have revealed that there is a growing problem in the apparently increasing amount of liquid as a proportion of the weight of canned foods. Its surveys have revealed that there is need for legislation to protect the consumer.

In a tin of canned fruit or vegetables as much as a half or two-thirds of the weight may be liquid. I shall substantiate that statement by quoting first from evidence gathered in a survey conducted by the North-East Region consumer groups in co-operation with the Consumer Group at Cheltenham. A large amount of tinned food of various sorts was bought at those opposite ends of the country.

I should like to give two examples, which are not untypical of the general result. Of 13 samples of mandarin oranges, the lowest content of liquid in weight was 23 per cent., which I would regard as a very reasonable figure. The highest amount of liquid was no less than 64 per cent., almost two-thirds of the total weight of the tin. In the same survey, in seven samples of tinned carrots the lowest amount of liquid took up 13 per cent. of the weight and the highest was no less than 48 per cent. Those variations alone indicate that it is very much a matter of luck as to how much food the purchaser obtains and how much liquid he buys.

Some very interesting further information came out of the same survey. A 15-oz. tin of Smedley's strawberries purchased in Cheltenham contained 10-oz. of liquid. A 10-oz. tin of strawberries of the same brand purchased in Durham contained 4½ oz. of liquid. Therefore, there was the utterly ridiculous situation that the larger and more expensive tin contained less fruit than the smaller and cheaper tin. This evidence points to the need for some form of legislation for the protection of consumers.

In addition to the splendid work done by the National Federation of Consumer Groups, there is plenty of other evidence all pointing in the same direction. Miss Beryl Downing, in her Friday shopping column in the London Evening News on 16th February, recounted how she had bought a number of tins of fruit, entirely at random, and checked up on them. The best of five tins of grapefruit of varying brands, sizes and prices had 12¼ oz. of fruit and 8 oz. of liquid. The worst contained 11 oz. of each—a 50 per cent. drained weight

Miss Downing also quoted that all except one of five tins of strawberries which she purchased had more liquid in them than they had fruit.

Miss Mary Griffiths of the Daily Mirror, who also writes articles on consumer matters in that newspaper, wrote to me a short time ago indicating that of a 7½ oz. tin of Woolworths brand strawberries which she had purchased and which had cost 8p, almost 77 per cent.—that is, over three-quarters—of the weight was liquid.

The consumer protection department of the West Sussex County Council has carried out its own survey, which has revealed exactly the same sorry story in a wide range of tinned products which were purchased.

It is not surprising that Mr. Manley, the deputy chief inspector of the department, wrote to me on 15th February enclosing a copy of the survey and the conclusions of his department. He said: This is a subject in which this Department is very interested, having received a number of consumer complaints about excess juice. I submit that it is hardly surprising that that consumer protection department, in common with other people interested in this matter, should have received many complaints.

I have quoted to the House evidence of canned food purchased in the North, the West, the South and here, in the capital city of London. I submit to the House, on that evidence from all parts of the country, that there is every cause for concern, and that there is a need for legislation to regulate the position.

I have repeatedly raised the matter at Question Time with Ministers of the Department of Trade and Industry. I note that the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery)—is in the House. He will recall that he has been subjected to a number of my questions on these matters. He will also recall that on every occasion when his Department was first on the Order Paper between Christmas and Easter, I tabled Questions. Furthermore, I was supported in the demand for legislation by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, I see some of the hon. Members in question now present.

I am grateful to the Minister for his courtesy in being present. As has been said, we have had a very long wait. I know the Minister has been very busy, and that he has other engagements to fulfil. I express my gratitude to him for being present in the House to hear me this afternoon. But no legislation has been forthcoming. Since the Government have been so dilatory, I have felt compelled to seek to introduce my own Bill. If the House gives me permission so to do this afternoon, the Bill will be submitted by co-sponsors, again, on both sides of the House.

Mine will be a short Bill. It will define the drained weight in accordance with the internationally accepted definition laid down by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. One could not have better standards than those internationally laid-down and accepted ones. I accept that there are certain foods that it would be difficult to measure in accordance with those standards. As my Bill would be essentially a reasonable one, it would contain a schedule which would list any foods it might prove impossible to measure by that definition. I believe that some provision in that direction has to be made. My Bill would make such provision.

Above all, the main principle of the Bill, which would be contained in Clause 1, would make it an offence to sell canned food without displaying the drained weight on the outside of the can. It has been represented to me that many people enjoy the juice, and that is undoubtedly so. But people have a right to know what proportion of fruit or vegetables they are buying and what proportion of juice is contained in the tin. My Bill would seek to give them the protection of knowing that when they make the purchase.

I submit that this Bill is necessary to protect consumers. I believe it will be widely acceptable in the House and in the country. I urge the House to give me leave to introduce it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Watkins, Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. Richard Buchanan, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mrs. Doris Fisher. Miss Janet Fookes, Miss Joan Lestor, Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, Mr. Edward Taylor and Mr. Alan Williams.